A look at how recording artists make room for altered states, even rituals, in their compositions
Author’s note: I originally wrote this article in the early 2000s for a pagan magazine called Crescent. At the time, I used the term “shaman” throughout the piece, a term which is appropriative. I know better know, and apologize for my ignorance. In this version, I have changed the language to refer to “mystics” instead.
‟There’s a line in [your song ‘The Real’] that says, ‘I have opened all my doors so there’s nothing left to hide.’ And this line calls up images of Aldous Huxley, William Blake and of course the Doors’ ‘Break on Through.’ Do you believe that music can take us into those places where we are beyond the five senses, into the realm of the spirit?” — Jim Ladd, DJ, WFX Radio Network
‟You hit it right on the nose, my friend.” — Travis Meeks, Days of the New
The search for transcendental experiences is something that almost defines us as humans. Alcohol; drugs; religious and mystical practices; hypnotherapy and yoga and music all bring us to altered states and sometimes to places we never dreamed were possible.
In the last issue of Crescent, I wrote about mystical experiences at rock concerts. Musicians like Jim Morrison and Tori Amos have tapped into the energy of audiences and of the earth and channeled them into transcendental group journeys. But many musicians explore and implement magical techniques in the studio as well, either for their own purposes or to induce spiritual, altered states in their listeners.
Many musicians, like Meeks, draw from the inspiration of other mystical musicians like Morrison or Dead Can Dance. But while Morrison’s mysticism was almost completely confined to his live performances, others have imbued their recordings not only with a message of spirituality, but with ritual and magic itself.
Perhaps the most basic of these techniques is rhythm. It’s no accident that the soundtrack to many all-night raves, festivals of dance and varying states of ecstasy, is the rhythm-heavy music known as ‟trance” or ‟ambient.” A simple heartbeat rhythm is often used in ritual circles to induce visionary trance states, and audiences at belly-dancing performances can be beguiled by a simple bellady rhythm as much as by the whirling movements of the dancers.
Indian-English singer Sheila Chandra has experimented with rhythm on her solo works, specifically in the pieces ‟Speaking in Tongues I-IV,” which are included on her albums ‟Weaving My Ancestor’s Voices” and ‟The Zen Kiss.” In these pieces, she seeks to recreate the sound of traditional Middle Eastern rhythm instruments like the tabla and mrdingham.
‟The reference in the title to a sort of ‘divine possession’ links into the Indian idea that all artists are channeling the divine,” Chandra wrote in her liner notes to ‟Weaving My Ancestor’s Voices.” ‟It also refers to the idiosyncratic ‘madness’ that I wanted to be characteristic of the piece.”
Chandra’s use of a technique called konnokol, which is the use of the human voice to create sounds typically produced by musical instruments (in this case, percussion), creates a state of bewilderment. ‟[I] deliberately break the time cycle,” she told Innerviews. ‟Percussionists find those pieces really, really annoying. I’ve deliberately done that all the way through — not picked up on what the rules are and broken them to suit.”
The use of disorienting vocals and the concept of being possessed by music or of channeling some kind of spirit while singing is common throughout the world’s religions. The practice of glossolalia, called ‟speaking in tongues” by Christian practitioners, often represents a union with the holy; the body becomes a shell through which the divine spirit speaks in its own language.
Some magical practitioners use glossolalia to bypass the ‟psychic censor,” that part of the conscious mind which blocks itself from creating magical results during ritual by doubting magic’s efficacy. From glossolalia new magical languages can be created, such as Enochian (which was not received via this technique, but by the scrying efforts of Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley) or Ouranian Barbaric, created by chaos magician Peter Carroll.
Carroll said that he created it because ‟I liked the sound of Enochian, and I wanted to demonstrate that an arbitrary magical language works just as well as one with a supposedly mysterious history.‟
Aleister Crowley, who used various ancient languages for magical effect, once wrote, ‟It may be conceded in any case that the long strings of formidable words which roar and moan through so many conjurations have a real effect in exalting the consciousness of the magician to the proper pitch — that they should do so is no more extraordinary than music of any kind should do so.”
One singer who has created a kind of language for her music is Lisa Gerrard, onetime singer for the renowned band Dead Can Dance. She has, at times, called it ‟the music of the heart;” Gerrard sings what is perhaps random glossolaliac words, perhaps a language that only she knows.
‟Shut your eyes and listen. We all have the lyrics to [Lisa’s] songs written on our hearts,” Gerrard’s husband, Jacek, wrote on her web site’s message board. ‟Use your voice [and] heart, not your brain. I myself do not know if Lisa sings in tongues; sometimes I think so and others I do not. Lisa herself said that she’s not singing in tongues… in other words, [she] uses her own ‘language’ or glossolalia, similar to what young children use to talk or sing.”
Whatever her method, Gerrard’s music has a profound impact on the psyche; much like with opera music, she is able to express emotions beyond language through the tone and range of her voice. Her music is a perfect counterpart to ritual and pathworking, precisely because of her use of her own created language (as well as other foreign languages) and her partnership with skilled percussionists like Pieter Bourke, whose rhythms add another level to the trance-inducing nature of her work.
While some singers use rhythm and glossolalia to open a doorway to another realm, others have used ancient languages and chants to achieve similar ends. Fields of the Nephilim singer Carl McCoy grafted an ancient Sumerian chant into one of that band’s most spiritually minded songs, “Psychonaut.” In it, he repeats the phrase, “zi dingir kia kanpa, zi dingir ana kanpa,” which translates to “spirit, god of the earth, remember; spirit, god of the sky, remember.” Even if we don’t know what we’re singing when we sing along to a song, sometimes we may be helping to work an invocation of considerable proportions.
McCoy’s lyrics are traditionally steeped in mythology, including that of the Watchers or Nephilim — angelic beings who, according to Hebrew tales, came to Earth out of lust for human women and wound up teaching humans about everything from magic to science — and Lovecraftian deities like Cthulu, an undersea dragoness inspired by stories of sea demons like Leviathan and Babylonian Tiamat. In “Psychonaut” he appeals directly to Leviathan, calling up a legion of followers, saying, “And you deserve us, Leviathan.” As he sings about these ancient gods, he brings them closer to our reality; he invokes them, and again, so do we when we sing along.
Just as Fields of the Nephilim combines ancient Sumerian language with Biblical mythology, Chandra combines Gregorian (Latin) and Sanskrit chants in her song “Sacred Stones.” By weaving these two traditions together — singing to Vishnu one moment, then raising her voice in an “allelulia” the next — she creates a sacred space in which all spiritual paths lead to the same source. “Somewhere all of us intuitively understand the links between ancient musics… The act of chanting is like throwing a stone into a lake,” Chandra wrote. “However small the stone is, the ripples (vibration) it creates affect the whole lake.”
On “Om Namaha Shiva,” Chandra repeats this single three-word chant again and again, her voice doubling with every quatrain until there is a chorus of Sheila Chandras singing in unison in a single melody (as opposed to a harmony). “Shiva is the destroyer of ignorance,” Chandra wrote of the piece. “I find the ‘clever’ part of me wants the chant to ‘go somewhere.’ Instead I listen to the harmonies the chant creates, or just to its fragile simplicity.”
“I think singing is an action that goes very deep into people psychologically,” Chandra told Innerviews, explaining how something as simple as a voice and drone can create a harmonic, a vibration that is created when two sounds hit each other in just the right way. Perhaps this is how music strikes unknown psychic chords within us. “I think there’s something very concretely special and truthful about singing. When you say there is nothing here but a singer onstage, along with a drone that does nothing — a single note or single note and its fifth that does nothing — who sings alone over that and fills the space, what happens is that truthfulness becomes revealed again.”
In ritual, once the deity is invoked, the body of the ceremony begins. Some musicians have created songs and complete albums with ritual and ceremony at their core. Fields of the Nephilim’s music is filled with such magical structures; “Psychonaut” alone is rife with them. The title describes someone who explores the inner world of the psyche, be it through drugs or meditation or other means of altering consciousness (Carroll wrote a book of the same name; McCoy denied awareness of the book at the time he wrote the song, despite his interest in chaos magic).
Perhaps more impressive is the song’s basis in sacred geometry. In particular, it’s based on the Golden Ratio, or Phi, 1.618. The ratio of 1 to 1.618 has been used to create everything from the pyramids of Egypt to the perfectly proportioned movie screen. If you draw a rectangle based on the Golden Ratio, then create another within it, and another within that, a spiral pattern emerges. In that way it is recursive.
In the version of “Psychonaut” released to the public (a 20-minute version languishes in a vault somewhere), I have found one instance of the Golden Ratio by dividing the first and second “movements” of the song. The first is 342 seconds and the second is 211 seconds; 342/211=1.62, which is 1.618 rounded up. I suspect there are more instances of this ratio within the song, but have not found them yet.
Other Fields of the Nephilim songs, including “Celebrate” and “Sumerland,” are almost pure invocation. In the former, McCoy simultaneously asks for and creates a safe haven where those who follow the spiritual path-not-taken can honor their ways: “Celebrate, give love and praise. Celebrate for our lesser days.” In the latter, the band creates a complex and hypnotic journey intended to shake our inner angelic beings into consciousness: “The sleepers in you — shapes of angels so deep within you. Feel your soul… Unloosen your soul.”
Like Fields of the Nephilim, Coil has embedded elaborate rituals into its albums. Born out of bands like Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle, weaned on chaos magic via Austin Osman Spare, Coil’s music not only contains ritual, but becomes ritual when heard by an attentive audience.
Coil’s first major recording, entitled “How to Destroy Angels,” was intended as music for the ritual environment. It uses the Martian octave, as well as percussive instruments made of metals favorable to Mars, as a means to arouse male sexual energy in a practice similar to Spare’s “Death Posture.” In Spare’s version, the body is sent into a deathlike state, either through sexual exhaustion, hypnosis or smothering (a practice hinted at in another Fields of the Nephilim song, the Crowleyian-titled “Love Under Will”).
According to a 1992 article in Melody Maker, Coil employs an invocational technique called “deep listening” to engage its audience. In addition, songs make hidden references to alchemy, Crowley, and sexuality, all intended to create a spiritual reaction in the listener — perhaps a precursor to what some DJs attempt at today’s raves.
‟Certain tracks on certain Coil records are designed to trigger altered states. Whether this happens or not is to some extent up to the listener,‟ Coil’s John Balance told Melody Maker. ‟Without wishing to sound pompous, we want to make sacred music. I don’t mean something that assumes Messianic proportions or delusions, but I think all good music should be an attempt to change people’s mind-sets.”
Whether or not it is intentional, music has the ability to affect us deeply and on many psychological levels. From the simplest rhythm to the most complex and ritualized construction, sound has a power over us which we are probably only beginning to understand.